Political commentators and National Party leader Simon Bridges characterise the current influence of New Zealand First on coalition government policy as ‘the tail wagging the dog’. Four cases stand out: the veto on change to the ‘three strikes’ law; the postponement of an increase in the refugee cap; New Zealand First’s objection to the concept of Crown-Māori ‘partnership’; and possible amendments to the Government’s proposed changes to employment relations law. 

Those using this metaphor are misusing it. The ‘tail wagging the dog’ applies to cases where a minority coalition party imposes its policies on its larger partner. There is an obvious example: charter schools, not originally part of National Party policy, demanded by Act, and legislated accordingly by the Key government.

For the cases currently before us, the metaphor does not apply. This is normal coalition politics: the larger party cannot always get everything it wants, because smaller partners can play a veto card. Similarly, the Key government could not get its changes to the Resource Management Act through Parliament, because it lacked the support of the United Future Party. People voted for MMP and like the coalition government it delivers because the largest party in the government can no longer get all it wants unless it has real majority support.

Commentators have one thing right: this is a series of blockages that are presenting a problem for the Government. If limiting the power of the largest party is a good thing in principle, one can have too much of it.

Commentators are also correct in suggesting the Government has a problem of political management. If there are disagreements within the coalition, they should be dealt with before they become public, and when they do become public they should be presented in the best ways possible. Commentators are right to point out Labour’s failure to keep Claire Curran out of trouble. The case of Meka Whaitiri’s push or shove has also received much coverage. But the failings of two junior ministers do not deserve the intensity of coverage they have received. There is little or no evidence of policy blunders. As scandals go, these are minor ones.

The policy blockages are far more significant, and deserve far greater analysis. How significant are they in the broader picture of Labour’s objectives in government? Will these events turn the polls against the government parties? New Zealand First may need to be careful not to overplay its hand. If polling were to indicate a continued Labour-Green plurality over National, with New Zealand First falling below the threshold, Labour could well consider calling an early election. The odds are against this high-risk strategy, unless relations between the two parties turn really sour. More likely, Labour and New Zealand First will both suffer from a perception of paralysis. But this is not in the interest of New Zealand First either.

Leaving speculation aside, the key point remains. The tail is not wagging the dog. Instead, the tail has been attached somewhere, and the dog has to stay where it is, being prevented from doing what it would like: for example, going out for a walk, or eating its dinner.

Professor Jack Vowles is in the Political Science and International Relations programme at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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